The West needs to be more resolute in its commitment to Ukraine

The West needs to be more resolute in its commitment to Ukraine

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 30 May05 June 2022

Four North American magazines (The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, and National Review) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in media outlets during the past week (30 May–05 June 2022). The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion, as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. The four magazines represent the centrist, conservative, and liberal political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves in the past week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts from paper versions of the magazines, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine at war: defence is improved by using commercial satellites, Ukraine’s resistance growing in the Russian rear, eastern Ukraine’s cities lie devastated, Ukraine’s path to NATO still looks thorny
  • The world and Ukraine: Western support to Ukraine is at its peak, US’s Ukrainian policy is about cautiousness and commitment, EU’s Ukrainian policy is about hard compromises and dithering, India’s Ukrainian policy is about growing into a global power
  • Russia at war: conquering cities in the Donbas is slowly and costly, the Kremlin remains in denial of its strategic blunders, Russia is ready to undermine the global nuclear status quo.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine’s defenders are making effective use of surveillance information from commercial satellites. Erik Lin-Greenberg and Theo Milonopoulos (Foreign Affairs) write that a few private satellite companies agreed to provide the Ukrainian command with high-resolution imagery in real time to help curtail the Russian invasion. This imagery is specifically used to “reveal and verify information about military manoeuvres, battlefield losses, and Russia’s targeting of civilians.” Moreover, the satellite imagery communicates to the world that the Russian army is not as powerful as anticipated, as well as raises waves of public support for effectively defending Ukrainians (in many cases convincing Western governments to change their position on providing weaponry to Ukraine). The satellite imagery also helps to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine and refute the Kremlin’s false narratives. This said, advanced cooperation between the Ukrainian military and private companies involves hidden risks, as growing amounts of previously classified information become available to non-government users, as well as to the Russian command. 

Ukraine’s partisans are systematically reducing the Russian presence on occupied lands. The Economist writes that occupying territories in southeastern Ukraine was a much easier task for Russians than keeping them under control today. Kyiv claims that in Melitopol alone Ukrainian partisans have killed more than 100 Russian soldiers. The partisans employ various means of resistance, from offering Russians poisoned food to blowing up railways and armoured trains. Ukrainian underground networks have been actively developing in southeastern oblasts since 2015; some of their cells got uprooted when local authorities switched to the Russian side, but the networks nevertheless remain operational. Kyiv is placing much hope on grassroots partisans during the new phase of the war when Western weaponry arrives and the Ukrainian counter-offensive starts. Also, in recent weeks a few military and communication facilities have unexpectedly caught fire in Russia, rumoured to be the work of Ukraine’s underground forces.

The eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv is considerably damaged and faces an uncertain future. The Economist focuses on Kharkiv, the second-biggest city in Ukraine, and writes that it may become a target of intensive Russian assaults at any moment. Being situated only 40 kilometres from the border, the city was almost encircled by enemy troops on the third day of the escalated invasion at the end of February. Then, a mid-May counter-attack by Ukraine pushed the Russians out of the suburbs, yet Kharkiv remains within the reach of long-range artillery and aircrafts. This constantly looming threat of assault makes Kharkiv citizens avoid open spaces or even consider relocating to more secure parts of Ukraine; around half of the city’s 1.5 million pre-invasion population has already left. Governor Oleh Synyehubov has little optimism to share and says the battle for Kharkiv does not look as though it will end soon. The postwar reconstruction and repopulation of the city will also be a challenging task.

Ukraine and Russia should revisit the Istanbul arrangements as a roadmap for reconciliation. Samuel Charap (Foreign Affairs) promotes the hypothesis that Ukraine’s declaration of military neutrality would stop the war, increase Europe’s security, and satisfy the objectives of both Russia and the West. For this to happen, both Kyiv and the Kremlin need to revive the arrangement of 29 March 2022 in Istanbul: “Kyiv would renounce its ambitions to join NATO and embrace permanent neutrality in return for receiving security guarantees from both its Western partners and from Russia.” The Istanbul arrangements would allow Ukraine to join the EU, yet the consent of all state-guarantors would be required for Ukraine to conduct any military activity. Charap also considers that “whereas alliances such as NATO are intended to maintain a collective defence against a common enemy, multilateral security guarantees are designed to ensure comity among the guarantors regarding the guaranteed state, and by extension to bolster that state’s security.” As the model for these guarantees, Charap encourages looking at Belgium’s declarations of neutrality in 1831 and 1839.

NATO’s support for Ukraine is nurtured by both military and moral considerations. Tom McTague (The Atlantic) interviews Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, who explains the rationale behind Western responses to the Russo-Ukrainian war. First, Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine have stirred strong emotions and feelings of solidarity among the Western states, which makes them keen on continuing to supply Ukraine with weaponry. Second, the West recognizes that “Ukraine is fighting not only for itself but for the civilized world, for the basic values of life and liberty, land and sovereignty.” Third, the war will likely become protracted and eventually end at a negotiation table; none of the fighting sides will capitulate. Fourth, “it is crucial for Western security that Putin not be rewarded for his aggression” and for Russia to be penalized for its misconduct. Finally, NATO should be further institutionalized and modernized, in order to effectively address the long-term threats coming from both the Kremlin and Beijing. 

Western support for Ukraine has peaked and will decline in the future. Andrew Exum (The Atlantic) speculates that “in the coming months, relations between the Ukrainian leadership and its external supporters will grow strained, and the culprit will be economic pain exacerbated by the war.” On the one hand, according to Exum, Western mobilization around Ukraine’s cause and the speed of weapon supply have been unprecedented. Seven years ago, in Syria the West went to “extraordinary lengths to avoid killing any Russians, for fear of starting World War III.” Such cautiousness is not observed in Ukraine today. On the other hand, growing inflation in the EU and the US is discouraging Western actors from providing Ukraine with even more means to harm Russia and, consequently, exacerbate the pain of the global economy. Exum concludes that the belligerents will likely agree on an armistice by autumn 2022: Russia will need to mitigate the impact of sanctions, Ukraine will have to bolster its defence capabilities, and the West will get a respite to address its internal problems. 

US is providing Ukraine with advanced long-range artillery systems. The Economist cites President Biden that “more advanced rocket systems and munitions” will be supplied to Ukraine allowing it “to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield.” The first batch will consist of four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and GPS-guided missiles with 70–84 kilometres’ range. The Economist believes that Germany and the UK will likely provide the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) that fires the same type of munitions. This supply is of operational importance as the Russo-Ukrainian war has migrated to open terrain, where artillery duels, not up-close skirmishes, have become decisive. If Western partners do not step in, Ukrainians will gradually retreat against the overwhelming Russian firepower. The Economist concludes that HIMARS and MLRS will not turn the tide of this war dramatically, but they will allow the Ukrainians to defend their positions and counter-attack better. Kyiv also promised not to use these systems against targets within Russia. 

Biden’s Ukraine policy is reactive but inconsistent and indecisive. Michael Brendan Dougherty (National Review) applies the logic of increasing stakes in a poker game to assess President Biden’s foreign policy: “In the great game around Ukraine, [Biden] seems like a player who is going to have trouble distinguishing between sunk costs and pot commitment.” According to Dougherty, Biden seems to be hesitating between the necessity of adopting harsh decisions and fear of violating his own red lines. In March 2022 he spoke against providing Ukraine with MiG planes so as not to irritate Russia, but two months later “NATO began delivering ready-to-assemble MiGs.” Three months later, in June 2022, Biden authorized supplying HIMARS and MLRS to Ukraine—a previously unimaginable decision. Dougherty considers that Putin may exploit Biden’s hesitation and eventually “claim some kind of victory out of this war.” At the same time, Biden will face criticism for his indecisiveness in the US.

Biden’s Ukraine policy is laudable but overly cautious. Matthew Continetti (National Review) presents his opinion on Biden’s essay for The New York Times and concludes that the President “can’t decide between giving Ukraine the weapons necessary to defeat Russia or settling for a war of attrition.” In particular, this is happening because Biden is reactive, not proactive, in his Ukraine policies: “The Biden policy is static, even as the shape of the war is changing in ways that favor the aggressor. The president’s goals are laudable. But his tactics are calibrated for a war that Ukraine is winning.” Continetti argues that if Biden does not take the initiative and engage the US in supporting Ukraine more consistently, “the war will turn into a frozen conflict with no clear resolution and with mounting humanitarian costs.”

EU is experiencing internal tensions, yet speaks in one voice against Russia. The Economist highlights that the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced the EU member-states to consistently coordinate their foreign policies in late February 2022. Today this consistency seems to be vanishing. However, The Economist advocates that “what sounds like serious discord must be interpreted by European standards. In the ways that matter, continental unity is holding up rather well.” The western part of the EU, where Russia has long been perceived as a trading partner, is calling for reconciliation but continues providing weapons and financial support to Ukraine. The eastern part of the EU, where Russia has often been regarded as a dormant threat, is calling for more mobilization, sanctions, and utter defeat of the aggressor on the battlefield. Regardless of these East-West frictions, “the spiky intra-EU rhetoric is not blocking co-operation.” The recently adopted sixth package of sanctions with its oil embargo serves as evidence supporting this stance.

The Economist dedicates a separate article to the foreign policy of Germany, one of the leading EU member-states, regarding Ukraine this week. The conclusion is made that the indecisiveness of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his team is harming their country’s international image. However, “given its history and pacifist political culture, Germany is helping Ukraine militarily more than many expected. If only it were better at saying so, and moving rather more quickly.”

India will eventually support the West in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Lisa Curtis (Foreign Affairs) claims that of all world’s biggest democracies, India is the only one that did not condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This occurred in part because New Delhi perceives the Kremlin as a partner in its ambition to become a global power. Nevertheless, Curtis hypothesizes that India will eventually side with the West: “The United States and its allies can offer India more—diplomatically, financially, and militarily—than can Russia. They can better help New Delhi stand up to China. In the short term, this reorientation may make procurement difficult for India’s military, but Russia’s invasion has already weakened Moscow’s ability to provide India with supplies.” Curtis suggests that it only is a matter of time before India joins the Western camp in its quest for global standing. 

Russia is trying to advance in the Donbas and conquer Severodonetsk at all costs. The Economist writes that Russians committed all its available troops and machinery to occupy the strategic cities in Luhansk oblast. Severodonetsk is one such city and therefore it is experiencing heavy shelling and regular street skirmishes. The Economist states that despite Ukraine’s resistance Russians are continuing their advancement; they have superiority in artillery supply and seem to care less about human losses. Using the chance of the Russians being focused on Severodonetsk, the Ukrainian army launched a counter-attack in northeastern (Kharkiv oblast) and southeastern (Kherson oblast) parts of the country. This counter-attack is progressing slowly, preoccupying Russian troops and preventing them from deploying to other front lines. The Economist concludes that Severodonetsk will likely fall, but with the right numbers of Western heavy weaponry, Ukrainians will re-take it and other cities of the Donbas in the future. 

Russian conundrum: neither mobilization nor retreat are acceptable. Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman (Foreign Affairs) argue that “full-out mobilization, which would make war an inescapable fact of Russian life, would revolutionize the regime that Putin has constructed since coming to power in 2000.” Instead of meekly enjoying their comfortable standard of living, as has happened before, Russians will need to engage in political discussions and activism. Placing the whole of Russian society on the war tracks and confronting it with the West will help to gain victory yet pose a risk of discrediting the Kremlin’s authority, especially if the war with Ukraine goes badly. At the same time, the Kremlin needs to deploy more troops to achieve its desired objectives. 

In this light, Kimmage and Lipman recommend that Washington not aggravate the Russians: “The United States should try to be and to appear officially agnostic on domestic Russian politics, to refrain from overt commentary and not to align itself with opposition movements.” Supporting Ukraine should not mean destroying Russia. Therefore, Washington should work with Russian diasporas and use other communication platforms to encourage (but not lead) Putin’s regime change from within. 

Russia’s nuclear blackmail signifies a new era in the global non-proliferation order. This week, The Economist dedicates two articles to the real and imaginary roles of nuclear weaponry in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

In the first article, The Economist argues that Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in order to make the overland invasion of Russian troops easier upsets the global non-proliferation order. This threat will make “vulnerable states that see the world through Ukraine’s eyes…feel that the best defence against a nuclear-armed aggressor is to have weapons of their own.” Apart from this, the “nuclear-armed states will believe that they can gain by copying Mr. Putin’s tactics.” In this light, the task of the West is to demonstrate to Putin that his aggressive (and often bluffing) rhetoric will not be rewarded. The credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation treaties should be restored. Otherwise, if Putin “believes that his tactics worked, he will issue more nuclear threats in the future.” 

In the second article, The Economist provides more details and offers a deeper insight into how the aggressive rhetoric dovetails with Russian foreign and domestic policies. Apart from this, a few cases of interactions between nuclear and non-nuclear states from the past are described.

Worth your attention:

Ukraine should not choose neutrality over NATO membership to end the war and bring stability to the continent. Samuel Charap (Foreign Affairs) advocates that finalization and eventual implementation of the Istanbul arrangements dated 29 March 2022 is the most reasonable way to stop the Russo-Ukrainian war. According to these arrangements, in exchange for its perpetual neutrality, Ukraine would receive security guarantees from eleven states, including Russia. These guarantees “would not extend to parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia (although Ukraine would not concede its legal claims to the entirety of its internationally recognized territory).” Apart from this, “Ukraine would commit not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign military bases or forces on its territory. Any multinational military exercises in Ukraine would be possible only with the consent of all the guarantor states. And finally, the guarantors would confirm their intention to promote Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.” The model for Ukraine’s perpetual neutrality should be drawn from the Belgian declarations of neutrality of 1831 and 1839.

Charap seems to offer one more scenario for Russia to “save face” in its Ukraine’s ventures. At the same time, Charap seems to overlook the fact that Russia is responsible for igniting the war and creating a series of crises that would not exist otherwise. 

In the Istanbul arrangements, which Charap praises, nothing is mentioned about Russia’s obligation to pay infrastructural reparations to Ukraine or cover the treatment of people who suffered from Russia’s invasion. Also, the Istanbul arrangements do not apply to the territories which Russia occupied by late March 2022. If Ukraine agreed to these arrangements, then the occupied territories would be legitimized as subjects to the Kremlin’s rule. 

Himself, Charap claims that the Istanbul arrangements will “make Russia…a stakeholder in Ukraine’s security.” He believes that such development will firmly anchor Russia in Ukraine’s security architecture. At the same time, Charap disregards the fact that Russia breached similar stakeholder obligations in the past—in particular, Article 2 of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. This Article required the Russian Federation to “reaffirm…obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”

By allowing eleven state-guarantors to decide on its national security and defence policy, Ukraine would lose part of its sovereignty, its actorness, and would become an object, not subject, in international relations. In other words, following the logic of the Istanbul arrangements, the close geographical proximity of Ukraine to Russia would be used as credible justification to transform a sovereign state into a kind of condominium.

Charap argues that the Belgian model of neutrality from the 19th century should be considered the most appropriate for Ukraine. At the same time, Charap mentions that “in 1914…Germany violated its guarantee by invading and occupying Belgium.” In light of this historical precedent, the declaration of neutrality does not save the protected state from the aggression of the state-protector in the long run.

One of the reasons why Ukraine initially approved, then eventually rejected the Istanbul arrangements was the discovery of the Russian atrocities in Bucha and neighbouring cities. The scale of these atrocities made Ukrainian society and decision-makers less inclined to seek compromises. After Bucha, the Russian invasion stopped being perceived as a military invasion but rather became a genocidal war aiming to wipe out the Ukrainian nation.

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He holds an MA in Journalism from Odesa Mechnikov National University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Wales, and a PhD from Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland). His academic interests include geopolitical and boundary-forming processes in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Black Sea region. Dr. Kushnir is the author of the book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (Czechia).

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